Tom Chick

Despite Odyssey’s long shadow, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla holds its own

, | Game reviews

In Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, you have to play as a Viking named Eivor, which is pronounced “AY-vore”.  Eivor is a flaccidly drawn Mary Sue of badassery whose flimsy characterization consists of machismo and shit poetry.  The male voice sounds uninterested.  The female voice is hoarse and forced.  Take your pick.  You can even swap freely as you play.  It matters that little.

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This one easy trick could have saved Watch Dogs: Legion!

, | Game reviews

Watch Dogs Legion is exactly what I want in my open-world games, and I know this because State of Decay was exactly what I wanted in my open-world games.  I don’t need someone writing a story about a character doing character things, because good writing in open-world games is rare and meaningful writing is almost non-existent.  So load me up with a team of dynamically generated characters and let me let them make my own story.  This is what Watch Dogs: Legion intends.

Sadly, it’s not what Watch Dogs: Legion actually does.

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Worst thing you’ll see during Trump’s term: Unhinged

, | Movie reviews

I have a soft spot for fat Russell Crowe.  The younger slimmer Russell Crowe was a total badass, but now that he’s older, bigger, and more sedate, he’s sporting an avuncular gruffness.  Instead of trying to impress everyone with how tough he is, he resorts to the burnished charm of a guy who used to be tough.  As Dr. Jekyll in Universal’s ill-fated Monsterverse, or the token white guy in Man with the Iron Fists, or the crazy uncle in The True Story of the Ned Kelly Gang, his grizzled teddy bear quality has served him well. Watch him considering himself on Google, and you’ll see that Shane Black pegged him perfectly as a soft-boiled detective in The Nice Guys.

But Unhinged, an awkward and uncomfortably mean-spirited thriller, wants to pretend it has cast a Romper Stomper as its villain.  It wants a scary and tough Russell Crowe, one so badass that he can rampage across a city murdering and raging because a lady honked her horn at him.  But what it gets is a fat, sweaty, wild-eyed Trump voter whose unhinged pyscho schtick is as unconvincing and inconsistent as his Southern accent.  He’s less Max Cady and more John Goodman shouting about what you get when you fuck a stranger in the ass.  Same performance, totally different tones.

In addition to its casting misstep, Unhinged has boatloads of dumb throughout.  The Ford logo on the front of Russell Crowe’s truck conspicuously hidden by a grill because Ford Motor Company probably doesn’t want their product associated with psychos.  Random car wrecks as if the production had to spend its car wreck budget or lose it.  A kid’s Fortnite strategy invoked as the way to defeat an attacking psycho.  An out-of-nowhere comedic one-liner when the bad guy is ultimately defeated.  The final lesson learned after all the murder and mayhem being “don’t honk your horn or it might make someone mad”.  Then, finally, a breathy ladysong cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper over the end credits. Why Don’t Fear the Reaper?  Who knows.

It’s all so tasteless and exploitative.  “He could happen to you,” the tagline pleads, imploring you to tap into your fear that some psycho could flip out at any moment and make your life a living hell of inept cops, overacting, and plot contrivances.  Urban thrillers are increasingly implausible in this era of cell phones.  Poor movies like Unhinged have to struggle comedically with the question “why don’t you just call 911?”  Meanwhile, it careens wildly into horror movie territory, playing crassly on the trope of the vulnerable young woman stalked by a psycho.  For a movie that plays more artfully with that trope, with fascinating performances by the victim and stalker, check out Alone, directed by John Hyams.  Alone knows that actors can pick up where plot contrivances leave off.  Unhinged just leaves us all dangling. 

I don’t do vinyl, but if I did, it would be the Ape Out soundtrack

, | Games

I’m not hip/pretentious enough to own a record player, and even if I were, I would be too lazy to actually use it. Who has time to slide something out of a cover, put it on a turntable, and carefully swing a needle arm onto the rim?

I would make an exception, however, for the Ape Out soundtrack, available from iam8bit, a hip/pretentious online videogame paraphernalia outlet. They call it “one of the coolest pieces of wax you’ll treat your turntable to”. That must be how people who own turntables talk. When you play Ape Out, dynamically generated jazz accompanies your violent rampage. It’s a soothing contrapuntal to the screams as you escape from the ape holding facility and violently slaughter your captors. To record a soundtrack, they had the developer play through the game to create a kind of definitive dynamically generated soundtrack. Ape Out on vinyl is available for pre-order now to ship later this year.

Pinball FX3 is on the verge of its 100th table

, | News

On October 20, Pinball FX3 will get the Williams Pinball: Volume 6 DLC, which adds three new tables.  This will bring the total available tables to 99.  At which point, Zen Studios can’t very well stop, because what sort of failed pinball collection gets this close to a hundred tables without reaching the milestone of 100 tables?  I mean, think about it.  100 tables.  That’s crazy.  If you were to take 100 pinball tables and lay them out end to end, they would circle the globe four times.  If you spaced them 1000 miles apart.  That’s crazy!

So what’s next after Williams Volume 6?  What table is going to tip Pinball FX3 over the 100-table threshold?  Technically, this latest Williams set will include their 100th table. At some point, a soccer table and a skateboarding table were mysteriously disappeared. I think there was even a ninja table, and of course that one would have mysteriously disappeared. But in terms of what’s available, Williams Volume 6 will bring them to 99, and whatever’s announced next will be the 100-table milestone.

Three years ago, I gave Zen Studios some ideas.  I hope they were listening.  Alternatively, I don’t see how anyone can have the Williams license long enough to implement 21 tables, and not a one of them is Pinbot or Bride of Pinbot.

I want to tell you why Hades is so good

, | Features

Bruce Geryk doesn’t want to tell you why Hades is so good.  And he’s got the right idea, because discovery is a lot of the joy in Supergiant’s triumphant return to form (everything that made Bastion, their first game, a work of genius is represented here).  If Bruce were to detail too many specifics, he would deprive you of all the “ah-ha, that’s how that works!” or “ooh, that’s a cool way to do that!” or “hey, look what I just unlocked!” moments.  These progressive delights are a real accomplishment in a genre as crowded and familiar as action-RPGs and rogue-likes.

But unlike Bruce Geryk, I’m going to tell you what makes Hades so good.  I’m going to narrow it down to the one thing that elevates this otherwise very good action RPG rogue-like, the one thing that other designers would do well to learn, the one thing that still eludes so many developers of so many different types of games, the one thing that boosts this from a game I really like to a game I love.  That one thing is…

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Age of Wonders: Planetfall finally launches into space on November 10

, | News

No one who’s actually spent time with Age of Wonders: Planetfall would accuse it of being a sci-fi skin draped over an Age of Wonders fantasy skeleton. There are just too many differences since Age of Wonders was about hobbits and elves and fireball spells. But it is one of those space-faring sci-fi games that has to conveniently omit the actual space-faring. Blame the success of Civilization for codifying how 4Xs work. One planet at a time, please. This isn’t Masters of Orion!

But the idea of amassing a galactic empire composed of multiple planets is finally coming to Planetfall with the Star Kings DLC on November 10th. Accompanying the DLC will be a free update that includes something called the “galactic empire system”. You won’t actually play multiple planets in one game; instead, you’ll play multiple planets in all your games. Paradox describes the galactic empire system as a “meta-layer where each planet you complete gets added to your own Galactic Empire”. According to the initial developer diary:

The planets you conquer in Galactic Empire Mode have special traits, such as having the oceans replaced with impassable void, or being covered in nuclear fallout. These traits are paired with extra secondary objectives for you to clear in order to earn more XP for your empire. Some secondary objectives even grant you the victory upon completion, allowing you to claim planets for your Galactic Empire faster than regular planetary domination! With nearly 60 traits in the update and up to 4 traits per planet, each planet you conquer feels like a new and unique challenge!

As your empire accumulates planets, each one gives you special bonuses you can carry forward to conquer the next planet. And with the experience point system, it sounds like Planetfall is getting a new risk/reward structure to encourage playing harder set ups on different kinds of planets.

An open letter to whoever found my Godhood notes

, | Game reviews

Dear sir or madam,

I am writing to you concerning the legal pad you found somewhere in the vicinity of Pasadena, California, on or about the date of September 12th, 2020.  The pad contains several pages of notes in cramped and somewhat messy writing.  Surely you can appreciate the time that was spent writing them.  Surely you can tell that the pencil was kept sharp.  Surely you noticed that entire sections were erased and rewritten for better formatting.  Surely it’s obvious there is some esoteric and deeply detailed subject at hand.

You might have inferred from what is written that these are the notes for a sermon, or perhaps someone’s theology homework.  But then you get to the references to nudism, cat worship, lust priests, and virgin sacrifice.  Perhaps you wondered if this might be some strange cult manifesto.  Maybe you have stumbled across the plans for a doomsday.  Maybe you should turn it over to the police.  

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What’s a nice shoggoth like you doing in a game like Carrion?

, | Game reviews

I remember Donald Pleasence screaming.  He’s trapped.  A white blood cell is bearing down on him.  He’s been shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a human body.  It’s the movie Fantastic Voyage, from 1966, and the white blood cell is descending slowly and inexorably toward Donald Pleasence.  It oozes over his head and he’s screaming and he dies a terrible death.  The special effects at the time, all very practical and weirdly theatrical, presented a white blood cell as basically bubbles from bubble bath.  Donald Pleasence screams as a stagehand pours bubble bath bubbles over his head.  I mean, that’s how it looks to me now.  But at the time, it was utterly horrific.  Donald Pleasence screaming as it consumed his head.

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In defense of the Batmobile. A look back at one of Arkham Knight’s best features.

, | Games

It’s been five years since Rocksteady wrapped up the Batman series that began in Arkham Asylum, continued into Arkham City, took a brief pre-tour with another developer for Arkham Origins, and then crescendoed in Arkham Knight.  One of the finale’s most prominent features was also its most divisive: the Batmobile.  If you ask someone their opinion of Arkham Knight, you’re likely to also get their opinion of the Batmobile.  “Great game, but the Batmobile stuff sucked,” will be a common refrain.

As an observer of game design, driving game aficionado, and professional contrarian, I take issue with this conclusion.  It fails to appreciate one of Rocksteady’s best design decisions in an all-around excellent game.  So I am here in defense of one of Batman’s greatest toys and how well it was expressed in Rocksteady’s greatest game (although you’ll note my enthusiasm for the Batmobile hadn’t fully developed when I reviewed the game).

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